two madmen fighting over which one’s voices are right

This Peter Oborne piece is being read as an insight into a power-struggle between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. I think it is more interesting to note that whatever the politics between them, both of them believe things that are completely impossible. This isn’t a fight between two men or two factions, it’s a fight between two delusional systems. Rather than two bald men fighting over a comb, it’s two madmen fighting over which one’s voices are right.

IDS apparently believes that both unemployment and poverty are caused by perverse incentives in the welfare state and it’s all Gordon Brown’s fault:

He believes that the vast majority are victims of a cruel system, partly created by Gordon Brown, which creates perverse incentives that encourage men and women to stay away from the job market

Work through the logic – we get rid of the incentives, they stop “staying away”, and re-enter the job market, which absorbs them into jobs. I think I see the flaw, don’t you? It’s Mike Konczal’s Job Helmet GIF.


Strap on your job helmet, squeeze into a job cannon, and fire off into job land where jobs grow on “jobies”. (I think it means something else in American.) There are about five unemployed people for every job vacancy, so even assuming an absolutely perfect success of policy, this can’t possibly do more than tinker around the edges, at an estimated cost of £9bn and doubtless rising.

This is not a minor, technical point. Whether the labour market can absorb people “activated” to search for jobs, or whether they are out of work because there is no work – this is the most important thing someone in IDS’s position needs to know. It is as if the Transport Secretary thought trains ran on chocolate, or the Defence Secretary was planning to issue spears.

Meanwhile, as far as anyone knows, George Osborne simply doesn’t accept that unemployment exists as such. The market ought to clear instantly and seamlessly and therefore it’s reality’s fault if it doesn’t agree with theory. And he doesn’t know that most of the DWP budget is either in-work or pensions. Further, he’s convinced that making life nastier for the poor is good PR (whether it is or not) and therefore worth doing.

The problem here is not which one is right, or even which one is going to win, it’s that both of them have departed from reality. And who speaks for reality? Possibly the civil service, acting in this case as the superego, inevitably overwhelmed by the emotional forces of the unconscious. Further, the fight in the darkened room is being described to us by a commentator who is himself very, very strange.

There are, at the heart of this Government, only three majestic ideas. The first is the restoration of the public finances, a task to which the Chancellor, strikingly, does not devote his full-time attention. The second is the grand programme of educational reform, masterminded with such admirable courage and verve by Michael Gove…

Majestic? Verve? Courage? Gove?

If you want tactical politics from this, I’d point out that a) Daniel Finkelstein’s famous gift for tact and diplomacy is alive and well, b) a prime minister who can’t sack Iain Duncan Smith is a poor fish indeed, and c) I think Oborne is wrong in diagnosing an alliance between the chancellor and the civil service.

If, as it seems, IDS can’t be fired, can stand up to the Treasury, the biggest and nastiest institutional force in politics, and can tell the Tory apparatus where to stick its posters, this implies he is getting powerful support from somewhere. (It’s not going to be his vast popularity, force of personality, or brilliant executive ability, is it?) If you believe Oborne, it might perhaps be God, but Mr Thing as the subject of divine intervention is too much for me.

I theorise that somewhere is the civil service. DWP is not a glamorous department, but it is an important one, and most of all it is an absolutely huge administration that controls an enormous budget. The civil servants will also know much more intimately how badly the Universal Credit IT project is going than any of the ministers. This explains why Heywood is opposed to UC. The civil service is pushing back on Osborne-ism, but is also worried that the UC project is a potential disaster. So they are supporting the man while going slow on the method. Oborne, I think, has missed the distinction between supporting the UC policy, supporting the minister, and opposing Osborne. I also wonder if the Lib Dems are backing IDS in opposing Osborne.

Anyway, the superego appears to have won a minor victory, pushing off the LHA cap implementation a few more months, but of course the repressed will return somewhere.

It could of course be worse, but “empowered incoherence” seems to get it pretty well.

5 Comments on "two madmen fighting over which one’s voices are right"

  1. Isn’t there an implicit criticism of Cameron in this? If Osborne has made a power-grab for the DWP, shouldn’t Cameron, as his boss, slap him down? I mean, the Chancellor /could/ control every department, but he shouldn’t: each department is too much for any individual as it is.

    This isn’t just a question of whether IDS is right or not; it’s about whether ministers can make their own decisions. That seems to be being eroded, and that is a bad development for the kind of government we have.


  2. I think you’re missing the point re IDS and Universal Credit. I’m sure he’d agree that the issue of “there aren’t enough jobs” is distinct from the “perverse incentives” issue. The former is an immediate problem about which they (absent massive spending) can’t do much except hope the economy recovers*, the latter’s a long-term project which should have been tackled in Blair’s first term.

    UC is a lot better (in theory) than the current system, in that the taper for those in employment is much less drastic. In other words, if you earn £x more per week you should actually be £x * .52 (I forget the exact amount) better off, rather than having benefit clawed back at a rate approaching 100%.

    It has some big downsides for the low-earning self employed, which I wrote about here.

    This of course is theory, how it’ll work in practice remains to be seen. HMRC seem to think it’s going quite well, but there’s many a slip.

    * and I’m not at all sure the economy will recover that fast. It can’t “get back to normal”, because “normal” 1984-2007 was built on increasing debt and house prices.


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